The purpose of a play, in addition to entertaining, is quite often to shine light on a basic human truth — the whimsical, joyful nature of love as portrayed in “Shakespeare in Love,” the uncertain future of assembly line workers in “Skeleton Crew” or the secrets we keep from ourselves as the characters did in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Each of these plays staged within the past two years at Baltimore Center Stage, highlight experiences that audiences can identify with and embrace, providing a ready connection with the story, the playwright or even the actors themselves.
Leading a theater, however, is not always so affirming, particularly for women of color.
“The journey to executive leadership was very lonely, isolating and is intentionally as intimidating as possible,” admits Hana Sharif, Center Stage’s outgoing associate artistic director who will serve as artistic director of The Repertory Theatre in St. Louis, known as The Rep, starting in June. She will be the first African-American woman in that role. New leadership includes Stephanie Ybarra, the first Latina in the nation to be artistic director of a theater this size, and a friend who has made the road to leadership less solitary, Sharif says.
“What’s so crazy about our field is that the actual pathway to executive leadership is very mysterious, intentionally. It’s a long, complicated process with a lot of subtexts, and no one trains you how to navigate through it when you’re in it,” Sharif says. “I think it is impossible to make it in this field alone. And so, to take that power away, I had not to be alone. That meant reaching out to Stephanie and having us lean into one another to say, ‘Hey, what are you going through, because here’s what I’m going through.’”
Ybarra hails from New York’s Public Theater and started on a part-time basis at Center Stage last October, transitioning to full time before the year’s end. Originally from Texas, she has almost 20 years of experience in theaters across the U.S. This is highlighted by her work as the producing director for the Playwrights Realm; the producing artistic director for the Cherry Lane Theater’s Mentor Project; the associate managing director of new play development for the Yale Repertory Theater and the Yale School of Drama; and the interim general manager of Two River Theater Company.
After meeting Sharif at a conference years ago, Ybarra says she felt an instant connection.
“I can remember even before we were in these job searches together,” Ybarra says to Sharif. “We hadn’t spent much time together, but I found myself in a room with you. You were leading the conversation, and I remember having this moment where I looked at you, and I was like, ‘I see you, I recognize you, and we’re going to be all right.’ I remember feeling like I’m not alone, that we were going to rise together.”
Still, when she learned of her ground-breaking role at Center Stage, Ybarra felt mixed emotions. “I didn’t know that I was the first Latina ever to lead an institution like this, and I was heartbroken because it’s 2018. I’m feeling proud, but I also feel like the weight just got a lot heavier. We need to reframe the narrative that [says] we are in any way ‘risky,’ that we are ‘full of potential’ rather than ‘accomplished, seasoned professionals.’”
Sharif agrees that there is a pressure to succeed. “There weren’t models that looked like us when we were coming into the business,” she says. “There were a very small handful of black women who had been working at the level for more than a decade. All of us have been slamming our heads against the glass ceiling. Being the first to break through is both amazing and heartbreaking.”
What has helped is each other — and their colleagues. “I think about my artistic peers, and I draw a tremendous amount of strength and inspiration from them,” Ybarra says. “I also keep looking beyond theater to music, film and television, literature, journalism and community organizing and political activism. I’m finding more and more that my inspiration or my fuel is coming from outside of the theater.”
Along with breaking barriers, Ybarra wants to bring joy back into the theater. Too often the list of what not to do with production is longer than the list of what can be done, and she wants to change that, making plays engaging and entertaining. “I’m stuck on how we can make it easy and joyful and fun,” she says.
Michael Ross, Center Stage’s executive director, says he is excited Ybarra has joined their team.
“As we went through the thorough and intensely thoughtful search process, it became clear that Stephanie deeply possessed all of the qualities, experiences and values that would catapult us into an incredibly exciting and fruitful future on our stages and in the community.”
Ybarra added that she wishes to build the accomplishments of her predecessor, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s.
Kwei-Armah served as Center Stage’s artistic director for seven years and was the force behind the two of the theater’s most successful shows, Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami” and “Marley,” a musical about Bob Marley that Kwei-Armah wrote and directed.
“Kwame is a beloved friend and colleague, so it feels natural to pick up where he’s left off,” Ybarra says. “We already share many of the same values, and my work with civic and community engagement as well as new work development are building on a rock-solid foundation he put in place.”
Like Ybarra, Sharif has amassed an impressive career not only as an artistic leader but also as a director, playwright and producer. In 2003, she began as an entry-level artistic assistant at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Within seven years she rose to become the associate artistic director and served as the director of new play development. In 2012, Sharif became the program manager at ArtsEmerson, and in 2014, she became the associate artistic director at Center Stage, where she directed acclaimed productions of “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Christians” and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” to name just a few.
Before she departs, she will direct Center Stage’s production of “Fun Home,” based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic novel about her life and her unique family dynamic.
Sharif says starting a “scrappy” grassroots theater company as an undergraduate at Spelman College sparked her interest in the arts. “I fell in love with the idea of being able to choose the stories that we get to tell and telling stories that are about reimagining the classics and reimagining the possibilities of the world that we are in.”
But she struggled with the lack of role models. “There were very few models of women in leadership positions, and there were even fewer models of women in leadership positions that did not have to mimic men in the way that they lead,” she says. And now, she reports, this is changing. For the 34 open leadership positions at theaters across the country in the past year, women were chosen for 17 of them.
“These are not just opportunities for women to lead but opportunities to reframe how we run our institutions and how our institutions serve,” Sharif says. “I think that in 10 years and 20 years, people will look back and recognize this moment as the tipping point for the industry.”
She admits to worrying about leaving Center Stage until she learned that Ybarra would become artistic director. “There was this huge well of relief and pride. I felt like my sister just won the Olympics, and the future just suddenly felt like it exploded with possibility.”